by Juliet C. Kinkade-Black
The poet and novelist Jenn Givhan is experiencing a writer’s block. This is surprising to hear when one witnesses her oeuvre: nine books published since 2016, including Landscape with Headless Mama, which won the 2016 Pleiades Press Prize for Poetry; and Trinity Sight, winner of the 2020 Southwest Book Award. With so many publishing credits and honors, it seems impossible that Givhan would have time for a writer’s block.
I sat down with Givhan on a recent Saturday morning–she on the patio of her San Diego home, her family beside her, waking up and engaging in the activities of family life, me in New Mexico, at my writing desk and on the phone. I first met Givhan a year ago when she hosted a workshop on embracing the cycle of the writer’s life, of which “writer’s blocks” are an inevitable part. At the time of the workshop, Givhan, her husband, and their two children were living in New Mexico. Since then, Givhan and her family have moved to San Diego, and her social media pictures suggest she is in the midst of unpacking boxes and reacquainting herself with the salty waves and hot sand of the beach.
“I’ve put a stop period on my writing,” Givhan explains of her current writer’s block. “The pause in my life is so I can experience it first, see it and feel it and enjoy it, and let the writing come later. The writing is not the boss, I am.”
For Givhan, this period of a writer’s cycle when one is not writing is seasonal, a fallow period when our seeds have gone to ground,winter has come on, and all living things are quiet and sleeping. A writing “block” sounds external, a big boulder that is rolled onto our desks and physically prevents us from reaching the page. Givhan prefers the word “pause” to describe this time period. A pause gives a writer the opportunity to rest, and to play. Givhan knew she needed this pause when she found herself looking at spring foliage, blue skies about a cold ocean, and sandy beaches and thinking, “How do I write about this?” instead of experiencing it as beautiful and part of life.
Givhan encourages writers to embrace the blocks, or pauses, in a writer’s life and cycle. For many of us, those times when the words dry up are uncomfortable, or downright terrifying. We may believe we are only worthy when we are producing, a capitalistic brainwashing that tells us life is about the hustle. Givhan believes there is another way, and it starts with welcoming the pause, whether that lull in writing be a day, a week, a year or more.
“I’m embracing the fallow period,” Givhan says. “Writers think of a writer’s block as something external, and we don’t know what it is or how it arrived. But if we realize we’ve actually called those blockages to us because of what we want in the subconscious, a blockage is more like a dam, or a gate, and we are the water. We are harnessing our water and our energy and choosing when to close the gate and when to let the water flow.”
This change in view didn’t come easily to Givhan, and isn’t always natural. Like most writers, she had internalized the messaging that she wasn’t a writer if she wasn’t constantly writing and publishing. Raising a daughter who is also a writer has taught Givhan the power and importance of listening to her own voice. Mother and daughter co-wrote a novel together and are currently seeking publication from a major trade publisher. Givhan wants her daughter to know that publishing is not the important outcome.
“In my writing life, I reached desperate depths most often because of not knowing my own voice and my own desires, separate from the message I received from Western capitalist society.”
Givhan wants to teach her daughter that it doesn’t matter what other people have to say about her writing. Instead, she wants her to know:
“You have written something powerful because it’s your story.”
And she wants other writers to receive that messaging, and connect with our inherent power, as well.
Often times, it’s Givhan’s daughter who reminds her mom that her worth isn’t coupled with external validation or production. “I’m still learning,” she says of not defining her worth by her output. “She teaches me more. For me, it’s an unlearning process, but [my daughter] never absorbed that message of capitalistic value, she already thinks she’s a wonderful, talented, powerful badass. That’s the truth she came into the world with and it hasn’t been torn from her yet.”
Over the years, Givhan has come to recognize the difference between a pause that she has invited as an opportunity for rest and play, and a pause that originates from pain and trauma. When a writer’s block is caused by the bad things that happen in life, and only when you are well-resourced–loved and safe–it may be time to dive into the darkness and fling that pain and grief and trauma onto the page, not to make art, not to be beautiful, but to get the rot out of you. Givhan likens it to being at the bottom of a deep, dark maw, and digging our fingers into the clay walls to build enough of a bridge to get out of that hole. When writers are in the hole, sometimes we need to fling that mud up out of the darkness and onto the page, just to get unstuck.
Jubilee, Givhan’s second novel to be released in 2020, began as a mud-flinging exercise when Givhan found herself at the bottom of one of those dark holes in the ground. The mud on the page was grotesque, not pretty, not meant for reading. But it was writing. And once she had written herself out of that dark hole, Givhan was able to use the editing process to polish that mud into art, to turn the grotesque into something love, inspiring, able to be read by others.
When writing from this dark place, Givhan turns to magical realism and surrealism, two tools that aid her in making her internal monsters of chronic physical illness, mental illness, and postpartum depression external. Givhan explains that magic allows her to reshape what she’s physically or emotionally going through. For Givhan, these tools allowed her to write her survival. She hopes others can use them as part of their writing survival, as well. “The writer’s block in these times of darkness is often that writers are afraid they’re going to make something that doesn’t live up to their expectations,” Givhan says. By purposely aiming for ugliness, writers can overcome the fear of not being good and get busy writing.
Givhan has two books forthcoming in the fall of 2022: Belly to the Brutal, a poetry collection out of Wesleyan University Press, and River Woman, River Demon, a novel out of Blackstone Press.Both projects have been several years in the making, written between fallow periods. Both projects represent and speak to the importance of embracing one’s internal power, throwing off external expectations or definitions, not being afraid of the darkness, and being brave.
So, fellow writers, embrace your writer’s pause. View it as an invitation to get away from your desk, to play in the water and appreciate the world around you. You are a wonderful, talented, powerful, badass writer, whether you are currently writing words on the page, or reading and doodling and daydreaming; whether you are submitting to publications or battling your own internal monsters.
Photo: Jenn Givhan - https://jennifergivhan.com/